Martyrs of “Mother Emanuel”
Charleston, South Carolina (2015)

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Martyrs of “Mother Emanuel”

In the evening hours of June 17, 2015, a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was interrupted by a young white man who drew a gun and began shooting. “Y’all want something to pray about?” he shouted. “I’ll give you something to pray about.” His violence took the lives of nine people, including the senior pastor, State Senator Clementa Pinckney.  

“Mother Emanuel”—one of the oldest African American churches in the country—had a long and storied history of nourishing the faith of its members, sustaining them in the struggle against racial oppression from slavery times to the present. The church’s history, presumably, played a role in the killer’s twisted plan to “ignite a race war.” In the days that followed, the country learned more of the faith and goodness of the nine people murdered that day, of how, in different ways, their faith had inspired them to lives of service and ordinary decency. And in the example of family members who confronted the killer in court to voice not just their hurt but their astonishing expressions of forgiveness, the world witnessed, as President Obama put it, the power of “amazing grace.”  

Guilty of nothing other than “praying while black,” these martyrs highlighted the enduring stain of racism, and among many Americans their deaths prompted self-examination and new resolve to uproot the scourge of racism.  

“[It was] an act that [the killer] presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin. Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.”  

—President Barack Obama, at the memorial for Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.